The Tragedy of Shaul

Shaul, whose sin is the subject of the haftorah on Shabbos Zachor, is one of the most tragic figures in all Tanach. Anointed the first king of Israel amid high hopes, Shaul was stripped of his monarchy, a disappointment and failure, after corrupting his one mitzvah: the destruction of Amalek.

Shaul is told to “go and destroy Amalek, men, women and children, all their cattle and all their property” (I Samuel 15:3) – to leave absolutely no trace of Amalek at all. He failed.

The gemara in Yoma 22b characterizes Shaul’s sin in one pithy expression from Kohelles (7:16): “Do not be overly righteous.” Shaul reasoned: If for the loss of one life, the Torah says to bring an eglah arufah, how much more so for many lives? And if man sinned, what did the animals do? And if the adults sinned, what did the children do? Why should they be killed? A heavenly echo admonished: “Don’t be overly righteous.”

It is a strange phrase, to say the least. We want people to be righteous. What does it mean to be “overly righteous”? What exactly did Shaul do wrong? He killed every living Amalekite, except for their king Agag, whom he planned to kill in front of all Israel. He also kept alive the best of the flock in order to allow people to bring korbanos. His violation of Shmuel Hablavi’s express command was undertaken with the purest motivation.

In his mind, his sin served a greater purpose, fulfilling G-d’s Will, but on his own terms. Does that justify his destruction and the destruction of his dynasty, as well as Shmuel’s accusation, “You have rejected the word of Hashem” (I Samuel 15:26)?

Shaul’s sin is especially jarring to us today because ever since the Haskallah and its infiltration into our world, Shaul has had many kindred spirits and even advocates. Often we hear these questions, overtly or subtly: “Does G-d want us to be robots? Does He not want us to think for ourselves? We were given minds to understand the Torah and to master creation but Man’s moral notions have advanced over the centuries.”

In the most extensive and pernicious expression of this doctrine , there are Jews who question whether the Torah is the final word on ethics and morality, and posit that there is a greater ethic than the Torah and a higher morality than Hashem’s Word. They brazenly claim that where the reigning moral notions conflict with the Torah, the Torah has to give way. They feel they must reinterpret the Torah according to the conventional morality of today (whether in dealing with non-Jews, with our enemies, with women, etc.).

Indeed, what did Shaul do but feel his ethical sensibilities were violated by the particulars of the mitzvah of mechiyas Amalek? Kill an entire nation and their cattle? So he killed the nation, reluctantly, but stopped short of fulfilling Hashem’s Will. For this he was “rejected by Hashem from being king over Israel” (ibid.)? But what did he do wrong? Shaul’s kal vachomer seems valid – why kill the innocent? That cannot be G-d’s Will!

In the early days of the mussar movement, which sought to revitalize and institutionalize the ethical sensitivities of Jews, the maskilim thought they had an ally in Reb Yisroel Salanter and asked him to open a modem Rabbinical school in which they would teach mussar along with the ideals of the Haskallah. Reb Yisroel declined, explaining the difference between Haskallah and mussar: “In mussar, we judge people by the standards of the Torah; in Haskallah, you judge people by the standards of Rousseau.”

What did Shaul do wrong? What is wrong with using one’s mind not only to probe Hashem’s wisdom but also to think for oneself? The answer is that the free, independent thinker is not essentially an eved Hashem, but, in fact, serves himself, his own thoughts, and his own opinions. He thereby severs the chain of the mesorah and becomes disconnected from Sinai. In a real sense, the mesorah must start again with him, and, unfortunately for him, it usually ends with him as well. Every generation then becomes responsible for creating a new Torah, and soon there is no Torah, and Hashem’s Voice is drowned out amid the cacophony of Man’s own clamoring.

Chazal succinctly summarized Shaul’s sin: “Do not be overly righteous.” “Overly righteous” means substituting our morality for Hashem’s, thinking that we can improve the Torah and make it more consonant with our values. When we evaluate each mitzvah and each doctrine of the Sages to see whether it withstands our moral scrutiny, then we are “too righteous” for our own good, and the Torah begins to wither and our commitment wears thin. Rav Yaakov Emden wrote that those Spanish Jews, who were of a philosophical bent, subjecting the Torah to the dictates of their reason, were the first to convert to Catholicism at the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition , whereas those Jews whose emunah came from the mesorah of their fathers and mothers willingly sacrificed their lives in sanctification of Hashem ‘s name.

Is this anti-intellectualism? Certainly not. Understanding Torah demands a very rigorous intellectual discipline – as well as humility . “Do not be overly righteous” means that just as the Torah attempts to refine our deeds through mitzvos, the Torah also attempts to refine our thoughts through its ideas and values. We cannot just carry out empty performances, and allow our minds to roam wantonly over the barren landscape of modern moral notions. “Do not be overly righteous .” If we are “too righteous” we may empty the Torah of its ability to guide and inspire and cease to be the Am Hashem.

This is Shaul’s enduring lesson. Accepting the yoke of heaven means submitting our actions and our thoughts to Hashem’s Will. If a particular mitzvah or Torah standard troubles us, then we have to bend ourselves even more (not less) to the Divine Will. We defer to the infinite and eternal Chochmas Hashem.

This publication is sponsored in loving memory of Willy Apfel, Zev ben Ezriel, whose life was dedicated to these ideals. He emerged from the Nazi crucible with his emunah unscathed, his love of Jews reinforced, and his commitment to Torah unwavering. That deference to the Will of Hashem is the secret of our nation’s survival , as well as the source of our salvation from our enemies and the geulah shleimah, may it come speedily in our days.

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